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Transmission and Transgression

The History of Rock 'n' Roll on Television


Gary Kenton

When MTV (Music Television channel) was established in 1981, an executive claimed that they had "integrated the most powerful forces in our two decades, TV and rock ‘n’ roll." In fact, this problematic relationship began in the mid-1950s, when the advent of rock ‘n’ roll represented a musical and cultural revolution. The backlash against the music and the youth culture from which it emanated, described here as "rockaphobia," was reflected in a process of adulteration, racism, and co-optation by television programmers, spearheaded by American Bandstand. This interplay between rock ‘n’ roll and television played a significant role in alienating baby boomers from the mainstream, motivating them to create their own countercultural identity. This social migration helped to delineate the boundaries that would be identified in the 1960s as the generation gap.

Transmission and Transgression uses an interdisciplinary approach informed by media ecology, the theoretical framework which recognizes that each communication technology, or medium, creates its own unique environment, independent of content. This analysis allows the author to identify inherent technological and sensory incompatibilities between the medium of television and the cultural practice of rock ‘n’ roll, and to place these tensions within the broader shift of physiological emphasis from the traditional, tribal world dominated by the ear to the modern world which privileges the eye. Even in its remediated, diluted form, rock music has occupied a significant niche on television, and this book is the most comprehensive summary, celebration, and analysis of that history.

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Chapter Fourteen: Conclusion


chapter fourteen


The problematic relationship between television and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s was both a reflection of, and factor contributing to, the wedge between youth and parents that came to be known as the generation gap. The more television practices and policies repressed the vital energy and progressive impulse of youth music, the greater the attractiveness of alternative ideas and lifestyles became. The identity forged by social and aesthetic choices made by baby boomers in the 1950s coalesced into a set of values that defined the counterculture of the 1960s and became part of a larger battle for social control in America.

As any creative expression moves from artist-driven inspiration towards market-driven commodity, a process of deracination is almost inevitable. When rock ‘n’ roll is remediated through television, the counter-cultural impulses of the music are submerged beneath commercial considerations. In the early years of rock ‘n’ roll this process was particularly swift and sweeping. Rockaphobia, the fear of rock ‘n’ roll in its unbridled form, was felt so keenly that programming was quickly consolidated and homogenized into a sub-genre epitomized by American Bandstand. What had been invigorating and seductive on stage and on recordings was converted into carefully choreographed “pseudo-performances” for the edification of an undifferentiated television audience.

As American Bandstand met the needs of the networks, however, it gradually lost its appeal to the post-pubescent baby boomers; the seeds of the show’s irrele←241 | 242→vance were sown...

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